WASHINGTON — Two months after President Barack Obama authorized 2,500 National Guard troops in Florida to combat the oil disaster, only 100 are being used.
The lack of requests for the troops has frustrated the White House, which has come under withering criticism about its response to the crisis.
“Everything is in place to put troops on the target,” says Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, director of public affairs for the Florida National Guard. “If we get the mission we’ll be there.”
But the guard has not received many missions. Neither Escambia nor Okaloosa counties, among the hardest hit, has requested any troops.
“Certainly at this point, everything has been manageable,” says Sonya Daniel, public information manager for Escambia County. “I’m not familiar where we would use the National Guard.”
The largest contingent of troops being used are patrolling the beaches of Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties for crude oil.
Bay County is happy to have the help. “Certainly the more bodies we have on the beach, the better,” said county spokeswoman Valerie Lovett. “We want to take advantage of all the resources we have available to us, and I think that has been a good move on our part.”
Escambia County beach patrols are being handled by a contractor with engineering and environmental expertise, which makes them best equipped to deal with the particular regulations on the beaches Daniel said.
BP has already paid $400,000 for “beach monitoring” to PBS&J, the contractor hired by Escambia County for emergency response.
The National Guard also has engineers, and officials said training the troops to patrol the beaches of Bay County took only two days. Because the National Guard was authorized by the president, the federal government pays for everything, and may be reimbursed by BP, Tittle said, although he added that he wasn’t “privy to the specifics’’ between the government and BP.
The troops were authorized on May 3, and the agreement with the contractors in Escambia County was not signed until May 7. However, the National Guard liaison, tasked with informing the counties about the capabilities of the National Guard, did not report to Pensacola until June 24.
In Okaloosa County, Chief of Emergency Management Randy McDaniel said that plenty of people are patrolling the beaches, including BP cleanup crews, county beach safety personnel and volunteers. Okaloosa made national news when the county commission voted unanimously that its emergency managers had the ability to overrule federal emergency managers.
Prominent Republican politicians like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. George LeMieux and Senate hopeful Marco Rubio have sharply criticized Obama’s handling of the gulf crisis. Gov. Charlie Crist has been less critical.
Obama seemed to jab back at his GOP critics in a June 15 Oval Office address when he urged gulf-state governors to activate the troops as soon as possible.
Escambia and Okaloosa counties have a National Guard liaison advising them on the abilities of the troops, and both counties indicated that they are aware that they could request National Guard troops.
“We won’t just show up unless there’s a mission,” said Tittle.